The war on drugs hasn’t worked. Time to change attitudes

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the 60 Minutes Facebook page is hosting a spirited debate following last night’s broadcast in which the show revisited an Ohio community that has been devastated by the heroin epidemic. Its broadcast last year first raised the national alarm over the drug.

It also started the debate over whether the new focus on addicts as ill rather than criminals has something to do with the fact they’re white and suburban.

The answer, as the New York Times said in an editorial last year, is “probably.” The “war on drugs” has often fallen along racial lines, particularly considering the penalties for rock cocaine were harsher than for cocaine in a powder form.

In any event, there’s a more enlightened approach to the problem and does it matter how we got there?


The 60 Minutes broadcast used Ohio’s drug courts as an example of this new attitude in which the court encourages addicts to undergo treatment when the alternative is a life-ruining felony. Minnesota has used drugs courts for several years, and with good reason: they work, research shows.

“The attorney general is not going to solve the problem. Your local sheriff, your local prosecutor is not going to,” warned Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said.

Waseca County News has more proof with its profile today of Ashly Sylvester, who last week became the Steele Waseca Drug Court program’s first-ever graduate.

Two years ago, she smoked marijuana constantly and had for 10 years. She kicked a crack habit was selling meth after her mother kicked her out of her home in Waseca, the paper says.

She had eight felony charges against her, which, she calculated, would’ve meant 99 years in prison.

Once Ashly Sylvester committed to Drug Court, she was all in.

“I didn’t realize until I got in recovery how much turmoil I’d created,” she says.

More than 19 months after entering Drug Court, Sylvester, 578 days sober, attended more than 50 court hearings, took 175 drug tests and exceeded 420 recovery hours in treatment, meetings and mental health support.

Today, Sylvester wants to get back into college and is considering a career working with disabled children. She describes herself as confident and determined.

Grams, Waseca County Attorney Brenda Miller and others on the Drug Court team call her a leader.

When other Drug Court participants needed rides, Sylvester ferried them to meetings. When they needed support or an ear, Sylvester was there. And when they were looking to have some fun, Sylvester took them to drug-free events.

Not all the stories are tales of success. Some participants dropped out and decided it would be easier to do jail time.

But there are more graduates coming on Wednesday and more waiting to get into the program, which is full.

Whether this works seems to depend on the rest of us, too, and whether we’re ready to truly view addiction as an illness.

Regardless of whether reports turn out to be true or not, the online pushback against reports that a local celebrity may have overdosed, contributing to his death, reveals that we’re not nearly ready to back up our words with a true change in our attitude.

From the archive: Graduation Day at the Drug Court (NewsCut)

  • Mike Worcester

    Two thoughts:
    Read about the case of judge Pamela Alexander, whose nomination to the federal judiciary was delayed interminably because she rightfully called out the disparities between the penalties for powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

    This may be oversimplifying, but when we moved from treating illegal drugs as a public health issue into a criminal justice issue, it took out the measure of humanity that this issue needed.

    Also, I lived through as a high school student the “Just Say No” mantra. It did not work.

  • Rob

    The only salutary thing “The War on Drugs” has given us is an eponymously-named alternative rock band.

    • Dan

      Isn’t every band name eponymous?

      • Rob

        Not quite. If for example, Wolf Alice released an album titled Wolf Alice, we’d say the album is eponymously named.

    • X.A. Smith

      One could say the only good thing to come out of The War On Drugs is Kurt Vile.

      • Rob

        as you wish

  • Lucas Sherrer

    The drug courts are a lie. They cherry pick those the will get the best results and only first time offenders. The rest they jail or those who fail urine tests. So it changes nothing.
    It is time to legalize and regulate all drugs. Take the savings from prisons, police and the ruining of people future lives and sink it into voluntary treatment.
    The drug war and anything short of legalization is evil.
    We do not arrest alcoholics and drinkers. We used to and that war failed too. It brought about huge crime. It made the Mafia a national crime organization.
    Besides, tobacco is legal and through education and limiting places of use. Use of tobacco has fallen 65%.

    • MrE85

      Yes, I know a thing or two about tobacco control efforts. But are drugs a different kind of problem? I really don’t know.

      • X.A. Smith

        Nicotene is a drug. I’ve heard a number of former heroin and alcohol addicts say it’s harder to quit cigarettes.

        • MrE85

          It’s not easy to kick. I speak from both personal and professional experience.

          • Rob

            Did you succeed in kicking the substance the control efforts of which you know a thing or two about?

      • Lucas Sherrer

        No drugs other drugs can be used without a lot of craziness except for methamphetamine.
        The negative drawbacks of prohibition are well known. The price of illegal drugs makes getting money a full time occupation. All other aspects of a persons life goes down the drain. From robbery, theft, burglary, prostitution, murder, etc.,etc. People stop eating well and their health suffers from this and lack of decent housing.
        Drug arrests make up a good portion of all arrests but many secondary arrests are linked to drugs because of prohibition. Like the fore mentioned crimes. The FBI estimates between 65 and 70% of all murders are drug related. So how much robbery or prostitution is drug related?
        As to affects on people, there have been a number of both government and non-gov. studies on heroin. The heroin was supplied free and the overwhelming conclusion, is most heroin addicts could lead pretty normal lives.
        Read the new Johns Hopkins university study, on the effects of the drug war.
        The drug war destroyed the black family(also inner city Latino family). In 1969( when Blacks were the most politically active ever) about 85% of all black children were raised in 2 parent homes. Now it is 85%, in single family homes. This is a result of locking up, huge swathes of young black men.
        The drug war is most definitely racist. Where did all that crack, come from in the early 1980’s. The mandatory sentences for it even though the same wait in powder cocaine did not. Blacks became the primary users of crack.
        When arrested for drugs, you get a felony conviction. You lose access to student loans, public houses and a decent job. Who would this hurt most?
        It is very hard to be a good parent, when you are in prison. Then you come out with a prison me, in causal conversation? IE. did you see how many females were in there? This is from the use of the word, in the correctional system.
        It also costs on average $40,000 per year to lock someone up. This about the same as tuition to a very good college or private High school.
        In South Central ,LA in the 1980’s, gun and liquor shops opened everywhere but few were owned by Blacks.
        Just for on the effects, on Black society alone, the war on drugs should end.

        • MrE85

          “The negative drawbacks of prohibition are well known” The question I am asking is “are the consequences of decriminalization and legalization of drugs well known?”

  • MrE85

    Is there any reason to believe a “change in attitude’ will make any difference? Or is it part of human nature to be drawn to drugs (I include alcohol here), regardless of the harm that they bring? Serious question.

  • jwest8

    If drug courts sent people to effective treatment that would be a major news story. Drug courts are nothing more than a government subsidy for 12 step programs which have not a shred of scientific evidence to support them. But it makes the court feel good; that it has done “something” and that it is the fault of the person with a dependency issue if they don’t get “better”. NEVER ever is the treatment model examined by those ordering tax dollars be spent on them.

    There are effective treatments, but the 12 step industry has a lock on the funding. Good luck trying to get at anything other than the “wishing, hoping and praying” model of “treatment.”

    • Kassie

      Or worse, they send people to places like Teen Challenge that are very conservative religious wise and not only work to sober someone up, but convert them to their very rigid religion. Many are destined to fail because their beliefs will never align with the right wing ones spouted at Teen Challenge.

      • jwest8

        Most 12 step groups are not all that far removed from that; at least on the belief in God, or equivalent, push. Not to mention the shaming of the dependent person that occurs in such “programs”. “12 stepped to death” has happened.

        The European (Scandinavians, esp.) have much more effective models of treatment combining medication and cognitive therapies. The US is still in the dark ages. Unfortunately.

        • Mark in Ohio

          I’d love to hear some programming on the alternative therapies and their track records in other countries. After hearing about people who have been through treatment multiple times, I have to wonder if there is any evidence of other approaches working better.

          • Kassie

            I read a great article about this last year, but can’t find it. A lot of other therapies include addressing why a person is addicted, thinking that there are underlying causes of the addiction. I know the article I read talked about a large number of addiction issues are because of a removal or separation from the feeling that the person is part of a group or part of society. The article also talked about how the 12 step process is so ingrained in addiction therapies it is really hard to get funding for research into other therapies.

    • Lucas Sherrer

      Drug courts are just another way to fleece more funding for the failed “War on Drugs”. This way after 45 years, the drug warriors, can say there is a victory.
      Drug courts are a manipulated failure. For the most part, they take mainly first time offenders and those who are most likely to succeed.

      They take a larger percentage of pot smokers by percentage by numbers than they do say, “heroin users”.
      For example, 90% of total pot smokers as opposed to 10% of heroin users. Pot is almost non-addictive, so it is relatively easy for the users to stay away, while on a monitoring program.
      These courts do not take people with multiple offenses.

      If drug courts were really about helping, they would not jail someone for failing a urine test and sticking them in jail with murderers and rapists.
      Why do courts deal with a health problem? I would not go or send someone to my lawyer for cancer.
      The war on drugs is an evil, racist lie!

  • Dan

    Didn’t watch the whole clip, but was struck by the pushback against the idea that judges on drug courts are doing social work. Of course they are. Is that bad?